A history of police violence in America
Capitol police officers’ mostly peaceful restraint in responding to the Trump-incited mob that overtook the U.S. Capitol building Jan. 6 stands in stark contrast to police behavior during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests. Sparse law enforcement presence and gentle handling of insurrectionists violently forcing their way into the Capitol highlight racist double standards illuminated last year by Black Lives Matter protesters, who were frequently met with militarized police utilizing tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and batons in response to activities including a violin vigil for Elijah McClain; walking on the sidewalk in Buffalo, New York during a daytime protest; and residents standing on their porches in Minneapolis in the days following the murder of George Floyd.
At the Capitol yesterday, videos show police with riot shields attempting to stop the mob from entering at some entrances, while other videos show police allowing the insurgents through gates and granting them access to the building, posing for selfies, and calmly escorting members of the mob out. The New York Times reported that officers “tried to reason with the crowd” and, “When asked why they weren’t expelling the protesters, the officer said, ‘We’ve just got to let them do their thing now.’” Thirteen people were arrested during the actual occupation of the Capitol building; that number grew to a little over 50 as the day wore on. By contrast, an inauguration protest on Jan. 20, 2017 resulted in more than 200 arrests, and some 14,000 people are estimated to have been arrested during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests all together.
In light of these contrasts, Stacker compiled a list of 50 chronological events showing the history of police violence in the United States. This report highlights policies, organizations, and events that explore how they relate to police brutality, institutionalized discrimination, and the loss of lives. Our research is based on news articles, government reports, and historical documentation including primary sources.
Multiple methods that encourage racial division within the system have been enforced and continue to show up in statistics over the years. Police killed 1,114 people in 2020 alone, according to Mapping Police Violence (MPV), and despite making up only 13% of the American population, Black people make up 28% of people killed by law enforcement. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by a policeman, despite being 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed. Black lives are being taken in stark numbers, but 99% of policemen have not been charged with related crimes, according to MPV. The day before anti-democracy insurgents stormed the Capitol by force, the prosecutor in Kenosha, Wisconsin declined to charge Rusten Sheskey, the police officer who shot and partially paralyzed Jacob Blake, a Black man. Cell phone video shows Sheskey shooting Blake in the back seven times as Blake tried to move away from the officer.
From the beginning, discrimination was institutionalized in political and economic spaces. The need to inflict forced labor on Black lives after slavery was the main objective for the original police force in the South. This is where force was ingrained into police tactics, as hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan merged with the system. Generation after generation, new rules are put into place specifically to target the Black population including segregation, incarceration, voter suppression, redlining and lack of government assistance, and economic infrastructure. Statistically, in reported incidents alone, Black people’s experiences with the criminal justice system have always been vastly different from those of other groups.
Keep reading to learn more about the history of police violence in America, from 18th-century slave patrols in South Carolina to 2020's calls for defunding the police.
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1704: Start of slave patrols in South Carolina
In an effort to mandate their power over African slaves, government leaders in Charleston, South Carolina, created the first slave patrol, birthing law enforcement as we know it. Not shy to commit acts of terror or violence, the “patrollers,” as these slave patrols were called, took on the responsibilities of chasing down slaves on horseback and returning them to slavery, embedding racism into the system.
[Pictured: Depiction of a slave patrol.]
1838: First police department
The first official American police department was established in Boston in 1838 after lighter methods of policing failed. While policing systems in the South centered on the slave system, the North policed labor unions targeting Eastern European immigrants. As Black people fled the horrors of the Jim Crow South, they too became the victims of brutal and punitive policing in the Northern cities where they sought refuge.
[Pictured: The mayor of Boston and police marshal Francis Tukey lead the procession of fugitive slave Thomas Sims as they move him to the docks for extradition to Georgia.]
1865: Southern states establish first 'black codes'
Slavery was officially abolished in America by law after the Civil War, but former slaves were far from free. African Americans were heavily policed following emancipation by both law enforcement and government officials who institutionalized racism with slavery by a new name: Black codes. These were a set of laws designated for Black people and newly freed slaves that restricted property ownership, forced cheap labor, and perpetuated other racist behaviors. The Black codes were precursors to Jim Crow laws, which lasted late into the 20th century.
[Pictured: Fugitive slaves who were emancipated upon reaching the North, circa 1865.]
Dec. 24, 1865: Ku Klux Klan formed
Threatened by the newly earned liberation of freed slaves, the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups were formed as acts of power by white citizens—and often former slave traders. Using white supremacy as motivation, these groups regularly terrorized Black communities, carrying out lynchings and destroying Black property. Soon, KKK members began joining law enforcement and other government positions, especially in the South.
[Pictured: "Visit of the Ku-Klux," wood engraving, Harper's Weekly, Feb. 24, 1872.]
1877: Protesters and law enforcement clash in the Great Railroad Strike
Railroad workers dismayed by pay cuts and unfair working conditions went on strike in the summer of 1877. Weeks of violence and chaos between protesters and police wreaked havoc in the North, causing looting and fires, and hundreds of people lost their lives. Eventually, the protests were struck down by the National Guard, and though not much came from the event, it was the first of many flashpoints involving labor rights.
[Pictured: The first meat train to leave the Chicago stockyards during the great railway stikes is escorted by the United States Cavalry.]
May 4, 1886: Labor leaders, strikers protest police brutality in the Haymarket riots
What began as a peaceful rally in Chicago, Illinois, over the right to eight-hour work days turned into a violent clash between police and protesters. After a display of callousness towards workers’ rights from police officers, protesters shifted their attention toward police brutality. A bomb was thrown to dismantle the protests, and officers fired into the crowd, killing eight people and leaving even more wounded.
[Pictured: The events at Haymarket Square, published in Harper's Weekly, Chicago, May 15, 1886.]
Sept. 10, 1897: Immigrant miners are attacked in the Lattimer massacre
The Lattimer massacre was one of the bloodiest clashes in American labor history. Unarmed strikers were peacefully protesting labor conditions in the mining industry when police officers opened fire on the line of strikers, killing 19 miners. The massacre quickly caught media attention, and as people learned of this latest instance of police brutality, a new sense of unity toward immigrant miners was born.
[Pictured: The Lattimer massacre.]
1904: Parchman Farm in Mississippi shifts from plantation to prison
Parchman Farm is a former plantation turned prison by the state of Mississippi. After the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, “except as a punishment for crime,” government officials established Black codes in an effort to exploit the continuum of Black suffering. Black people were often harshly punished and incarcerated for breaking fragile rules white people did not have to follow, causing mass incarceration in disproportionate numbers. Prisoners sent to the Parchman Farm experienced harsh labor described as “the closest thing to slavery that survived the Civil War,” having to work sun-up to sundown performing slave duties under the control of armed guards.
[Pictured: Male prisoners on the porch at Parchman Penitentiary.]
1916: Start of Great Migration causes racial tensions
Millions of African Americans found new life in the North in an effort to escape harsh Jim Crow laws and extreme racial violence, as well as take advantage of job opportunities in what is now known at the Great Migration. This was new to white communities and police departments who were not accustomed to the presence of Black people. They reacted to the staggering increase in numbers with fear and hostility, attitudes that were exacerbated by racist stereotypes.
[Pictured: African American men, women, and children who participated in the Great Migration to the north in Chicago, 1918.]
May 22, 1917: Ell Persons lynching
Ell Persons, a Black man in his 50s, was lynched in 1917 after being accused of raping a white teenage girl. After being beaten into a confession, he was doused with gasoline, burned alive, and dismembered in front of thousands of spectators. As it was normal for lynchings to be displayed in front of the white public, sandwiches and snacks were sold at the lynching.
[Pictured: The Ell Persons historical marker in Memphis, Tennessee.]